Left with a Humbled Heart

Allison Harpole. NUI Galway, Ireland


May 4, 2015

Of all of my trips through the semester, the trip to Belfast tugged at my heartstrings the most and opened my eyes to a culture damaged by chaos and violence yet living life in the moment. I was excited to visit the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland and go with several of my friends from Arcadia. I had no idea that the trip would leave such a lasting impact on me.

The first day in Belfast, we toured the Titanic Museum that displayed a large assortment of artifacts and information on the shipyard that the titanic was built, the people who built the famed ship, and of course information on the ship itself. It even included a ride that took us through the process of shipbuilding. Yes, I felt like I was at Disney World for a few minutes while on the ride which absolutely thrilled me! In addition, we could hear the voices of the Titanic survivors speaking about their eerie and devastating experience aboard the world’s most famous ship. Outside the museum, the area where the Titanic was built is marked allowing visitors to fathom the sweat and blood that went into building the enormous ship.

To end the afternoon, we were given free time to check into our rooms, eat dinner provided for us by Arcadia (which was a great dinner buffet in the hotel), and enjoy the nightlife of Belfast. My friends and I went first to the Crown pub, one of the oldest in Belfast, and then to Robinson’s pub where we danced to live traditional music. It was by far my favorite pub I have been to in Ireland.

The following day, we took a trip to Co. Antrim to see Giant’s Causeway. As I stood by the shore atop of the volcanic rocks, I watched as the waves tumbled into the rock’s edge and crashed with great force. Seeing Giant’s Causeway was even more thrilling than seeing the Cliffs of Moher for me. I was absolutely blown away by how amazing the volcanic formation was. And our fantastic tour guide was the icing on the cake! 

For lunch, we went to Portrush, a small seaside town that resembled those of California. We ate a delicious lunch at a cafe that overlooked the water where surfers took advantage of the rough waves rolling into the shore. I could only imagine how much fun it must be to visit the town during the summer when the carnival and amusement park are filled and the beaches are packed with locals and travelers alike.

It was a tiring yet full day, so most of us took the afternoon to relax in our rooms before dinner and visiting pubs for the night. Because Robinson’s was so wonderful the first night, my friends and I returned to end the night on an even better note than the last. 

Little did I know, our final day would be the most memorable for me. When our guide for the weekend told us that today would likely be our favorite day, I was not so keen on believing him. How could a bus tour of West Belfast and a lecture be better than the other two days? But he was right. I was moved and humbled by the things I saw on our final day in Belfast.

After a big breakfast and a morning that was spent packing, the Arcadia students crammed onto buses. A guide was provided for each bus to give us the information on The Troubles and the areas we would be visiting. As I listened to the stories from our guide as I looked at the places she spoke of, I felt my stomach cringe and a lump form in the back of my throat that could signal tears at any moment. The peace walls between the neighborhoods seemed like a sick joke and the gates that we constantly had to detour around because they were closed between the neighborhoods was unfathomable. Do people really live like this? Though peace was officially declared by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the reminders of the chaos the people of Northern Ireland endured still remains today by the peace walls, murals, gates, and the stories by the Northern Irish who are not shy when speaking about their rocky past. I watched as people around me took photos smiling in front of the murals, posing with friends, and laughing with one another. As I stood still and quiet, my friend came up and said, “We get to come, see these things, and then leave. But the people here? They don’t get to escape. They have to live with this everyday.” I was deeply moved by her words and in complete agreement. We do get to move on, and though the people have mostly put The Troubles in the past, the tension is forever engraved in their hearts.

When our tour commenced, we were all taken to the hotel where the lecture would take place. The bus was nearly silent on the drive past Queens University as I assumed others were as moved by the realities of The Troubles as I was. 

The lecture was given by a professor who had made it his life’s mission to document and photograph every mural across the world, inaction to those of the neighborhoods of the Belfast during the days of the Troubles and current times. As we all listened to the passionate professor flip through slides on murals and explain their significance, I was startled and stunned by one particular photograph. The mural he showed us was in a UVF neighborhood with Eddie the Reaper walking through a graveyard. On the crosses marking tombs of the dead, were the names of three men. These three men were living in the neighborhood on the other side of this mural. Three IRA men who were given a death sentence through this mural. I could barely fathom the horrific content of the mural. And to think this went on for decades on both the sides of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. When the lecture commenced, I asked the professor about the fate of the three men on the mural. They did live, but I could not help but think of the men who lost their lives due to the conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland for decades. 

The Belfast/Antrim Coast weekend was much more than I could have ever expected. I went looking forward to seeing the Titanic Museum and saying I had been to Belfast, but left with a newfound knowledge of the people of Belfast, the Troubles, and the vibrant lives they live today. I was deeply humbled by the experience and sparked a keen interest in learning about The Troubles and what truly happened between 1968 and 1998 in Northern Ireland. Of all the trips Arcadia offers to their students during the semester, ensure that you go on this one! You will not gain the same experience by traveling to Belfast on your own and the knowledge you will leave with will be more than you could ever expect.